The sound of silence: Two sides of Somali-American life

It’s not how the papers report; it’s what they’re not reporting.

Brian Reinken

For the moment, a portion of mainstream media is fixated on two stories pertaining to the Minneapolis Somali community: the reaction to last month’s terrorist attack in Kenya and the meteoric rise to stardom of Somali actors in the movie “Captain Phillips.”

Both of these stories present some aspect of Somali-American life, but they fail to present the whole truth.

The news media shapes the public’s perception on reality merely by selecting stories to report. Because there are more stories in the world than could ever be shared, the news media must carefully choose what’s worthy of dissemination. Logically, this is necessary. The alternative would be an infinite informational transmission.

The need for selection, however, results in the omission of literally millions of stories in favor of the few that are deemed most salient. At best, the result is myopic. At worst, it can be malevolent. Either way, it isn’t objective.

The very act of selecting any potential story over another indicates hierarchal prioritization of relative importance. No longer is objectivity in the news a question of how something is said. Rather, it’s a question of what’s chosen to be said in the first place.

Every single journalist, reporter and editor is subject to this selection bias, in addition to a host of other inevitable human prejudices. Suddenly, the reporters charged with generating wholly objective news are proven to be incapable of doing so.

To illustrate this, imagine that two newspapers publish stories on Syria. One chooses to publish a study that measures the acreage of publicly owned land in Syria. The other decides to release a statistical summary of monthly death tolls in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Assume that both of these stories are examples of objective reporting. Now realize that the stories’ respective readers will nevertheless walk away with radically different views on Syria. Politics of opinion worm their way into objective news despite the barriers erected against them.

This should be self-evident, as should the fickle nature of the mainstream media. Stories of Syria gave way to those of the government shutdown. The public’s concern over the civil war a few weeks ago is now marginalized. By implication, the lives of foreigners are more important when Americans are involved than when they aren’t.

It’s only natural to pay attention only to what affects you. That’s certainly true to some degree, but at a point the idea reaches close-mindedness.

In Somalia, in Syria and in Minneapolis, lives persist beyond the printed page. In the news media, facts without context have the effect of fiction. They are the direct result of innumerable, unconscious omissions designed to prevent overload.

For the media to overlook this and still invoke objectivity is preposterous. Selection bias is impossible to overcome and has serious implications for the real world. 

First is the fact that inherent biases are especially dangerous when the news stories they affect pertain to foreigners and ethnic or cultural minorities. These groups, already on the outskirts of the mainstream public’s collective consciousness, are at an extremely high risk of becoming a proverbial “other” against which the mainstream culture is measured. But the story of the Somali community is more complex than anything that could ever be published, and the Syrians existed for millennia before America considered striking their country.

Second, selection bias is not limited to any culture, or country, or group. Rather, it is the product of human consciousness and of the fundamental idiosyncrasies that pervade the fabric of every individual’s experience. 

Third, objectivity is ultimately unattainable, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek it. It’s crucial to be active, inquisitive and passionate in order to achieve a better grasp of reality. We mustn’t get our news from a single source, for these often focus on communities’ radiant heights or crushing lows. Almost always, media occlude a middle ground.

Those in the news media surely do the best they can to spread awareness, but the field has limitations. Recognizing these confines will lead to greater social awareness.

The stories of terror and of fame depict two totally different sides of the Somali-American experience. But a culture is not a coin. There are thousands of sides to every story, and the space between the best and worst of times contains something far too valuable to be overlooked.